Our Greatest Misunderstanding About Love: Philosopher-Psychiatrist Esther Perel on Modern Loneliness as Ambiguous Loss and the Essential Elements of Healthy Relationships

On the lifelong art of feeling worthy of wanting and worthy of receiving.

On the lifelong art of feeling worthy of wanting and worthy of receiving.

In his revelatory 1956 classic The Art of Loving, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) dared defy millennia of cultural distortion, setting out to heal our most damaging inheritance from the Romantics and to correct Freud’s limited, limiting theories with a new lens on love, radical and realistic: For centuries, our culture conditioned us to “see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving,” which in turn conditioned us to believe that the hardest thing about love is finding the right person to love us, but once we do, love is easy.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Fromm inverted this equation.

Drawing on his work with patients and on emerging ideas in humanistic philosophy that had only just begun revising the old narratives of religion and Romanticism, he observed that the key to love is to treat it not as a noun — a state to be found and possessed — but as a verb — a practice to be mastered. The difficult work is the mastering, which then confers ease upon love between those who have done this work — the work which Rilke well knew “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a print.

An inheritor to Fromm’s work born a century after the publication his masterpiece, the Belgian-American philosopher-psychotherapist Esther Perel — author of the modern classic Mating in Captivity, creator of the insightful and pleasantly disquieting Where Should We Begin? “podcast for anyone who has ever loved” — picks up where Fromm left off in this lovely animated adaptation of her On Being interview, exploring the essential elements of love as a practice, the delicate relationship between play and risk, the cyclical nature of passion, the osmosis of desire and self-worth, and how the concept of ambiguous loss illuminates the modern experience of loneliness:

Complement with Fromm on what self-love really means, his six rules of intimate listening, and Alain de Botton on remedying our central error of logic in love, then broaden the lens with an ancient Eastern perspective in the great Zen Buddhism teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s field guide to the skill of loving.

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